tv [untitled] May 30, 2012 9:30pm-10:00pm EDT
>> all right. so now it is good afternoon, so good afternoon. and remember that we're honoring two presidents, george wash and abraham lincoln. here is something from abraham lincoln that seems fit for this afternoon. the probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just. that seems to be very appropriate for our conversation about civil rights and the united states. we enter the conversation in the first panel, having looked at the double v victory, the world war ii, the cold war, the personal responses of people like ernie green of the little rock nine to what was happening in terms of the violence, and the movement by both truman and eisenhower, though they not be supporters of social equality, to do some things that move the country forward with regard to civil rights. and so now we come to the terms
of john f. kennedy and lyndon baines johnson, typically regarded by people who think of the modern civil rights movement as two presidents that were very much associated with civil rights. and the question on the program is to ask how legislation was moved forward. what were the forces that inspired the legislative process by these two presidents to advance actual civil rights legislation. and we certainly have the panel to do that. so let's start with -- because i like a little context. after we leave eisenhower and now it's john f. kennedy's time, what was happening in the country in terms of the naacp, in terms of what lawyers were doing. kenneth mack, in terms of the restlessness of the black
community about where civil right was. because the little rock nine, that was considered a victory of sorts. but yet we were so far from legislation. kenneth mack, i think i'll start with you. >> okay. >> all right. put the context for us. >> what was going on in the country? several things. first, the brown decision had been decided. it had been unevenly enforced. there had been the little rock crisis. but really, nobody knew whether and when or how school desegregation would really happen in the south. the justice department was trying to enforce existing civil rights laws, but there were holes in existing civil rights laws. it was mentioned earlier that under president eisenhower's watch, the 1957 civil rights act was enacted. the 1960 civil rights act that gave the justice department additional powers to enforce civil rights.
but really still very, very significant constraints on what the justice department can do. the naacp is caught up with the struggle of trying to implement brown versus the board of education and then there was martin luther king who was catapulted to prominence with the montgomery busboy cot. in 1955 and 1956. but king is also looking in 1960, '61 for ways to push the movement forward. so what the context was a lot had been done. desegregation of the military, brown versus board of education. president kennedy and robert kennedy were both racial liberals. they were actually comfortable with social equality. they were personally comfortable around african-americans, which was a -- which distinguished them from most of the
predecessors in the office of the presidency, but still nobody knew what the next step was. the next steps were driven by things and people who were outside of the office of the president of the united states, outside of the executive branch. they were driven -- the next steps were driven by african-americans and whites, segregationist whites in the south. >> so harris wofford, john f. kennedy first had to get the presidency. and part of his exceeding to the presidency, he had to deal with the pressures s os of civil ri. some of this that has gone on after eisenhower's presidency, how did he do that and how did he view civil rights at that point as a candidate before he actually got into the chair as president? >> one day shortly after i was hired by kennedy, i'd been
campaigning for him on foreign policy grounds. even though he had supported the jury trial amendment in 1957 of the first civil rights act since reconstruction. he was in trouble, but i was ardently for kennedy on foreign policy grounds. he picked me up on a corner in georgetown. he knew i had joined the staff by then. and hadn't known anything about civil rights background i had had with dr. king and promoting civil disobedience, talking about it at least, since writing a book with my wife on india and gandhi, et cetera. and he said now in ten minutes, tick off the things that i ought to do if i'm president to clean up the damn civil rights mess. so i had my moment. i had my ten minutes. >> what'd you say? >> well, among other things, i
said with one stroke of a pen, you can sign the executive order eliminating discrimination in federally assisted housing that the civil rights commission had recommended and was sitting on eisenhower's desk for six months or something like that. with one stroke of a pen. he said i like that. we talked about the problem of the southern legislatures filibustering. he jumped at the idea of executive action. and i had five or six other points. a few days later he called me in and said sergeant shriver has convinced us we should have a civil rights section of the campaign, not just a minority votes section, but a civil rights section that would have black and white leaders and hispanic leaders, walter ruthern and williams, all the black
leaders that we could get to actually join the campaign. we've learned about your ties in those years. would you go down and work with sergeant shriver, who i had already gotten to know simply, and knew that he was somebody that i enjoyed more than anything for the next ten years that i've had in my life. so night and day, we were in the civil rights section. a key part of it was the democratic platform which was the most far-reaching political civil rights platform that any party ever had even, the republicans and their abolitionists blooming. it was an extraordinary one that went even further than they wanted because chester bowles was the chair of the democratic platform committee, and he assigned several of us to -- on civil rights to have a maximum
platform and then a minimum that we would fight for because he knew he would have to compromise with the southerners, and he wanted to have the maximum. and we had good two-runs, the minimum maximum. that morning robert kennedy got up on a stare -- a chair in the caucus of the democratic leaders on the floor and said "today's the day for the platform." and the civil rights platform is strong, and we want the kennedy delegates, every one of them, to go all the way with bowles' platform. i went and reported to bowles that that was the command. he said my god, i don't know what will happen. and the southerners didn't balk, and the whole maximum got adopted, somewhat by accident, which kennedy avowed and campaigned on a number of times,
and then came the call to mrs. king, and then in due course, i became an assistant to the president for civil rights, having first urged louis martin, our key colleague, who is african-american, a wonderful colleague in my lifetime, and they wanted him in the democratic national committee. and twice on the edge of signing the executive order on housing, the southern legislators came to him and said, first, if you sign that, we will not support your housing and your economic plan. and then second time he delayed it. they came and said, we're all up for election. and if you -- we're going to lose the south if you sign it. twice when i was booked to go and explain executive order on a
martin's radio show, he canceled at the last minute. and the pens started flowing from the civil rights movement decided to send pens saying one stroke of the pen. and allegedly when the strokes -- when the pens came in, the first huge bundle he said send them over to wofford. he got me into that. but on executive action, he formed a subcabinet group on civil rights which he asked me to chair, and which every cabinet department had to have a member of the subcabinet committee on civil rights. we met regularly to find out and to move and support each other in how much each department could do. kennedy launched it, supported it, and then the freedom writers rode.
>> so you would say he was good on civil rights? >> i'm just giving you a beginning of the story. >> i asked the question. i'm just trying to get you to characterize it. >> i came in due course to realize that what many thought was weakness or unreadiness -- >> gradualism. >> gradualism, et cetera. al sharpton interview on chris matthews said your book has convinced me that i was wrong that he was just a gradualist and didn't have a commitment to civil rights. i would recommend his book because just looking at it cleanly now from the democratic platform to the call to mrs. king to the executive actions that were taken to the two weeks after the worst violence of the
freedom riders, the order to the interstate commerce commission was to design regulations that would end segregation in interstate housing, which is a happy end to that story going through the submission of the civil rights bill. >> so not gradualism for you. pretty good. let's let it sit there for just a second. i'm going to go over to roger. >> you're the moderator. >> i'm going over to roger for a second to talk about, if you could pull together the middle of this thread. so kenneth has talked to us about what is happening. there is an ongoing -- i would say persistent thought that kennedy came late to civil rights. despite what he may have said on the campaign trail. and despite what harris wofford has just told us about setting up the civil rights division. you worked for kennedy and johnson. i wonder if you could pull that middle together for us and give us your assessment of where he was, and did you see him as
gradualist? >> you're asking me? >> yes, you. >> if i saw the president as a -- you couldn't be black and alive after ernie and his schoolmates and other black youngsters in the south on freedom rides end up getting hedge whipped because they want decent education. and the president is nominating judges who you wouldn't jump over the moon to put on the bench if you were me.
personally, i thought -- i worked for kennedy in the campaign and never supported a republican. i am democrat all the way. when i got to washington, there was a sense that i had that many of the white guys who were in charge of running civil rights present company excluded -- [ laughter ] >> really weren't steeped deeply in it and how deep and nasty and hard and mean the racism in this country still was. and pretty words weren't going to fix it.
that made it impossible for me to first of all continue as a lawyer who was going to make some money, which it turns out i didn't do, to my wife's unhappy dismay. but you couldn't -- you couldn't live in this society, this heated racial society and not get in it. and get in it with force and effort. and i thought the kennedys were nice people for being so rich. but that they didn't really
understand the depth, the americanism, and the awfulness of america's racial problems. there wasn't no quick thing to do. some clever, oh, get mack. have mack bundy come in here and say something clever, and maybe we can figure out how to do this. that's not how you can do it. there was no way to do it but for people to get into the trough and go and use years and years and years, all of their lives to change it. and i would say that, though -- and there were -- you have to be honest about these things. this is not going to -- the next sentence is not going to be a very nice one. but it was really hard to get into -- try to get into civil
rights and make it better. and get the administration to do more when you got the sense that you were moving around in several conglomerations. of fairly arrogant white guys who -- many of them who never had anything to do with race at all until they got into the thing and were working. now harris was -- is -- you have my exculpation. you're not, you weren't. he was one of the white guys that people could go to early on
in the president's term. he was the good guys. white house ralph dumbman. but there were a lot of guys who just wanted to be near the top. and guys who didn't know a lot. so i got lucky. i made a contact inside the white house, ralph a duma. remember ralph? ralph, i would go with assistant to the president. a nice guy. he was in foreign aid, and ralph would come, or have me come, and we would talk about issues at the top of the foreign aid program. and then it always turned to race. and then i would -- then i would really argue hard and say the president needed to be pushed. and one of the things i used was the stroke of the pen. we believed it. where's the pen? what's he doing about it?
and then you had the president when he's -- you remember that the president when he was campaigning had gone to alabama and had seen the governor. his name was patterson. and the president-elect said, "oh, he is a man i can work with." well, thurgood marshall, a close friend of ours. i had grown up knowing him. he said to me what is the president saying that for? that man is a rat. he's just terrible. he is -- he's going to make such trouble in alabama. the president -- most feeling was not expressed that harshly.
but it will feeling that his administration was feeling its way. and that this -- the attorney general who was in charge of this stuff was being a tough guy and that's the administration was full of tough guys. was he tough enough was one of the things that people would ask of somebody as -- >> let me ask this question before i get sheryl into this conversation. you said something that's very important particularly after our first conversation, that's about the appointment of federal judges. where is eisenhower worked very carefully to make sure judges he put in place were pro civil rights to the extent of his ability. kennedy did not do that.
as a sock to southerners he appointed segregationist judges. the impact of that, if you would. >> the impact of it was huge. so just to take one of the judges he appoints harold cox in mississippi. harold cox was proposed to the eisenhower justice department as a judicial appointment and herbert bradl laughed when he heard harold cox's name. you can't possibly appoint this guy when kennedy comes in. harold cox gets appointed. cox was probably about the worst of the lot.
because they can make his life unhappy also by blocking his legislation, by writing on federal administration, by depriving programs of money, and yeah, it's one of many instances where it requires a little bit of confrontation, and the president and the attorney general shied away from that confrontation and appointed a number of segregationist judges in the south and this was very, very important. one thing that people don't understand that we understand the role of the judiciary in little rock, the role of the judiciary was always key in the civil rights movement, civil rights protesters get arrested. are they going to get out of jail? we're going to have a protest. will there be abinjunction against the protest. state courts want to enjoin a protest, are the federal courts going to act and in fact even as
far back as the montgomery bus boycott who most people don't know is that in fact the federal judiciary helped save the montgomery bus boycott, they won the boycott because they filed a lawsuit and got it in front of the federal judiciary and eventually the u.s. supreme court declared the alabama segregation statute unconstitutional. so federal judges were going to be key in whether or not the movement was going to succeed or fail in the south and the ken diadministration put a number of federal judges in who issued rulings that were rear to law. harold cox would speak in racial epithets from the bench, would refer to african-americans as monkeys from the bench and this was someone who kennedy put in and in fact the judges who the
kennedys liked were the eisenhowers on the fifth circuit because when the district court judges ruled against them they had to go to the eisenhower judges in the fifth circuit to get basic constitutional rights for african americans in the south so the federal judges were key. >> can i continue this, just on this road, because when you are sitting inside the government and you're seeing that, and it's your party and your president, you're in a terrible mess, and so you have to do what you have to do, taken is to point out to the president of the united states that they weren't responding to ernie green and
his colleagues. you look at the picture of elizabeth eckford and that girl yelling at her and screaming with her face all in turmoil, rage, again you got to say, come on, the government i work for, come on and do something, and i would say it in words and ralph would say, write it roger. you know this stuff but i don't know this stuff. you write it. so i'm writing it and i decide break my career, write, break my career, write, and then i finally said to myself what you need to do. i said to myself what are you, a man or a bunch of -- you can't
ask yourself that question if you're not ready to give the right answer, and i did give the right answer by my life and it came back from bob kennedy like a rock out of a thing thing you knock down tanks with. it was really, it was really tough. he's green. he doesn't know what he's talking about. he'll certainly never get an appointment in this department as long as i'm attorney general. >> let me get charlene into this conversation, all right, okay. [ laughter ] >> i just want to say that that changed some stuff, and all i
can, i'm trying to say in this that what the people on the street were doing and their demands and their pressure and enlightning and particularly the young people and you say you've got to change things to respond to these people. i'll be quiet. [ applause ] the one-two combination of street versus court and kenneth told us what's happening legislatively, roger told us what's happening inside the administration as far as harris wolford told us the same thing and let me can explain who elizabeth eckford is, one of the students who was going to be a part of the desegregation of central high school along with ernie green and the rest. she's captured in the iconic photograph where there is a
woman screaming at her and a mob behind her and she's trying to get on the bus by way of running us up to this point in time a wonderful book talking to both elizabeth eckford and the woman screaming at her. you should read that book. the streets versus the court, what we have going on here are people who have become black history like charlene hunter-gault, and you've become a pivotal part of this story of pushing the kennedys toward looking and dealing with civil rights in a way to that point john f kennedy -- tell us the story. >> thank you, callie. i sort of like to pick up where roger left off because as i listen to what all of the people were talking about what was going on inside, i kept think
being the young people in this audience, and i want to say to them that it was young people like you who changed the minds of the kennedys. those young people, i just did all this research for this book i'm going to promote in a few minutes. [ laughter ] but i'm living with this now in a way i didn't live with it when i became the first black student at the university of georgia, but i was encouraged by what else was going on with the students in the movement. the president and the little rock nine and ruby bridges over in new orleans who was in a way more poignant than you guys. you were 11th and 12th grade. she was in the fifth and sixth grade and she had to walk through this mob -- first grade, and you know, we talked about the continuity of history. when barack obama was running for president, he went to selma and one of the things he said there was "i stand